Oct. 3, 2023
UCalgary researchers bring Academics Without Borders to Ghana
When Dr. Rita Yembilah, PhD, first came to the University of Calgary from her native Ghana in 2001 to do her MA in environmental geography, the very concept of research ethics for social scientists was foreign to her. It was, quite simply, unheard of when she did her honours degree at the University of Ghana, Accra.
To be sure, Yembilah, an adjunct assistant professor of development studies in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, was always a well-intentioned researcher, but never having been schooled in research ethics, there were blind spots in her methods.
Back in Ghana, she interviewed people in public without their consent and she had a community leader put out a recruiting call, making some feel pressured to participate in her studies. She assumed that all her questions should be answered and after the interviews she gifted participants, but did so publicly in an indiscreet, potentially humiliating manner, which looked like more like payments than tokens of appreciation.
“I broke so many principles of research ethics,” Yembilah says. “I was never taught to be sensitive about these things.”
It wasn’t until she took a Department of Sociology course that covered research ethics as a standard practice that she realized the harms that could be caused without established research protocols in place.
It was a revelatory moment in her education and Yembilah became passionate about research ethics. So much so that when she returned to Ghana for a time as a university lecturer, she was dismayed by the many unwitting ethical breaches that she witnessed among her peers.
This is why she jumped at the chance to partner with Dr. Jenny Godley, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, when Godley — an expert on research ethics and chair of UCalgary’s Research Ethics Board — approached her about the possibility of a research ethics project in Ghana. Knowing the country’s university terrain well, Yembilah suggested that SD Dombo University of Business and Integrated Development Studies (UBIDS) would be an ideal candidate to benefit from an Academics Without Borders initiative.
Established in 2006, Academics Without Borders (AWB) assists low-income developing countries by helping them improve their universities.
'Crucial step" for Ghana's post-secondary institutions
Last spring, Yembilah returned to her country accompanied by Godley and the two of them trained a group of 50 social scientists at UBIDS, teaching them research ethics processes and helping them institutionalize the university’s first ethics board for the social sciences.
It is a step crucial to the growth of Ghana’s post-secondary institutions, says Godley. “There are so many high-quality academics doing important, impressive research in Ghana in areas such as development studies, business, and land management, but so often they’re lacking the infrastructure they need to take that research to the next level,” she says.
A lack of ethics protocols can also be prohibitive when outside researchers wish to do work in developing countries, Godley explains. “Increasingly, funding agencies are asking for local ethics reviews,” she says. “So, if I’m applying to do a research project in Ghana, the funding agencies will want to know if I’ve talked to anybody in Ghana about it. Is the research I’m proposing appropriate in that cultural context? UNICEF, for example, won’t provide research funding until there’s a local ethics review.
“Ideally, there needs to be a local ethics board in place for funding to be approved. But many developing countries, like Ghana, don’t have ethics boards, or, if they do, it’s only a medical ethics board.”
She adds: “This is problematic because social science research has its own set of risks.”
Yembilah can attest to that. In Ghana she saw her peers collect personal information from their research participants with no protocols or accountability. “There was no counselling as to how this information would be used,” she says. “And when the information is taken, there’s no process by which people can ask is this safe? Is there any way this can be traced back to me?”
Yembilah was also dismayed to witness some researchers getting into arguments with their respondents. “These people are telling their stories the way they see it. If a researcher thinks a respondent is wrong, it’s their job to clean up the data and present the facts later. Challenging respondents is not right because there is a power dynamic at play. A respondent might feel they can’t say anything back, so they keep quiet. Or they don’t answer truthfully.”
Research ethics board considers many factors
A research ethics board takes many factors into account, says Godley. Respondents need to give informed consent and their privacy should be protected. Risks versus benefits must always be considered. Could subjects be harmed in any way by participating in a study, be the risks legal, social, or even psychological, if questions are triggering or traumatizing for respondents? Who benefits from the research? Is it just the researcher, or are there greater social benefits? These are but a few of the quandaries a local ethics board can address.
It's important to note that the AWB framework is based on close collaborations with the developing countries the organization is aiding. “We had to be very careful not to treat ourselves as the drivers of this project,” says Yembilah.
“That’s part of the colonial legacy where we come in from the West, from a position of power, and dictate the process. We had to remember that our mission was one of collaboration, and even though my fellow Ghanaian scholars were often looking to us for guidance, we had to find ways of redirecting the conversation so that they were leading us.”